Historic Philadelphia Inc. offers story time


Playing dress-up is part of Doug Thomas’ job. The Eighth-and-Moore-streets resident puts on his heavy coat and 18th-century garb during these hot summer days to roam the streets of Philadelphia as Samuel Nichols, the first officer commissioned to the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I’ve been with the company [Historic Philadelphia Inc.] longer than anyone, except perhaps some of the board directors,” Thomas, who started with the company 16 years ago, said. “I was a Town Crier before there were History Makers. We wore these awful, knickers and stockings and shoes and I guess girls wore petty coats. There were these awful bright yellow vests that said ‘tour guides’ and we handed out copies of the [Historic] Philadelphia Gazette.”

Today, Thomas, 48, is a director at the company and he helps to train other actors to play the part while also performing. One of his duties is leading the Tippler’s Tour — where he takes revelers around to four bars in the Old City area — at least four times per week.

“I’ve been doing it long enough that they finally made me a director, so I’m a director of the History Makers now,” he said. “I work as part of an artistic team to help design this programming. It’s really fantastic to have a hand in what people are going to see.”

The season runs until Labor Day with a few programs held over into later months. All History Makers have a three-week training in the spring to make sure they can field all questions.

“Everyone who does this every week is doing a whole lot of research still. Constantly keeping up on it,” Thomas said. “I guess your mind only holds a finite amount of information. I can almost feel other dates and facts being pushed out of my head.”

Sixteen years on the job has made Thomas an expert on Nichols, but there are some things that can’t be found in history books or the hundreds of hours of research Thomas has put in over the years.

“Someone might say, ‘Samuel Nichols, do you have a dog?’ I have no idea if he had a dog. I just have to take an educated guess. He ran a tavern, and if there was a dog, it was probably a spit dog that worked the spit around the fire,” he said. “History is so vast you never get done doing research.”

Thomas continues to don his heavy gear in the sweltering heat because he enjoys teaching visitors and locals alike about the history that makes Philadelphia great.

“This is a great time of year because this is when we get families. I had a family yesterday that I talked to for about a half-hour. There was a 6- or 7-year-old boy who was asking pretty intelligent, in-depth questions about the American military in the 18th century,” Thomas said. “They all had interesting things to say — the mother and aunt, too.

“It is a great way for kids to learn about history. To walk the streets the way Ben Franklin did.”

Born in Indiana, Thomas made his way to Pennsylvania in 1986 when his family moved to Mansfield. He attended college at Mansfield University, graduating with a dual major in theater arts and speech communications.

“I took an apprenticeship with the Arden Theatre Co. The apprentice program, it’s not acting, there are a variety of things you can apprentice in,” Thomas said.

Since then Thomas has become something of a jack-of-all-things production, working as an actor, as well as in various behind-the-scenes roles. He has a certification to choreograph stage fighting and travels to play other first-person interpreter characters in addition to Nichols; However, he maintains he never plays any of the “big names,” such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

“I was an apprentice for 10 months and right before I left my position as apprentice, I got a job working with Historic Philadelphia,” Thomas said. “I’ve worked for them every single summer since I’ve been there. The Once Upon a Nation project, which happened about six years ago, revamped everything. They kept the programming that was already in place and that was working and they added to it, which has been really great.”

The new version of the program started by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in ’94 is the result of the artistic direction and the dedication of employees like Thomas, who is proud of the slate of offerings he puts on and even happier to be in a city so rich with history — and a neighborhood that is the height of convenience.

“I was looking to buy a house and I like that South Philly is close to everything and I came down and looked around the neighborhood,” the three-year homeowner said. “I liked it, the kind of sense of community. I’m not far from the Italian Market, buses that run to Center City, not far from the subway.”

Between his new home and the continuing education he provides to daily visitors about Philadelphia’s historic center, Thomas is living the life he always intended.

“I was never drawn to New York, but even when I was kid, having been in a small town, I thought Philadelphia was a cool place to live because of all the history,” he said. SPR

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.